Effective Communication in “The Non-Expert Zone”

This article was originally published on The Strategy Bridge on December 14, 2014.  Thank you again to the team at The Strategy Bridge for continuing to publish my work.

You are a subject matter expert within an organization. You have identified a problem. You have a plan to remedy it. Your plan requires additional funding, equipment, or authority; a waiver, change, or addition to an existing policy; or change or addition to law. As you brief your plan to higher levels within your organization on your way to the person with approval authority, it is likely that your audience does not share your knowledge, experience, or subject matter expertise.

You have now entered the Non-Expert Zone.

In most organizations, when leaders get promoted, their responsibility increases. This increased responsibility often forces that leader to shift from focusing on a few problems in-depth to the wave tops of many problems. S/he now depends upon his subordinates to go in-depth on a subject, handle problems at the lowest possible level, and only bring forward problems that demand the promoted leader’s time and attention. As the subject matter expert with a problem to solve, you not only need to have a solid plan, but also know the best way to present that plan to each unique audience on the way to its approval.

Here are some considerations for tackling this problem:

Identify the stimulus for the problem.

To fully understand the stimulus, trace it as far back as you possibly can. In my experience, and to make an Army-centric example, the content of a Field Manual can sometimes be traced to a Department of Defense Directive, to an Executive Order, to a Law, and then to an event of some kind that caused Congress to act. Additionally, this tracing may lead to the discovery that the stimulus is actually caused by a narrow view of a policy or law and you can remedy the problem at a lower level.

Make your short- and long-term plans to remedy the problem.

If your plan requires additional funding, ensure you take the fiscal year budget cycle, unfunded requirements process, and future years defense program into account. If your plan requires additional equipment, identify the source as specifically as possible; examples would include where to purchase a piece of equipment, or from what organization you can take to meet your shortfalls. If your plan requires additional authority, a waiver, change, or addition to an existing policy, find out who can make that decision. If your plan requires a change or addition to law, meet with your Congressional Affairs/Legislative Affairs personnel and find out the best way forward.

Determine risk versus gain.

If the current situation remains, what is the risk? If those risks are fully or partially realized, what is the consequence? If the consequence occurs, how much time and money will be spent fixing the problem after the fact? What is the gain if the problem is fixed?

Determine your audience.

Determine who you need to brief and at what level they sit. Find out how each of those people prefers to be briefed. My first line supervisor learns best via auditory stimulus, so I use text or slides sparingly and talk a lot. My next supervisor is visual, but prefers text over graphics. Above him is a supervisor who is visual, but leans towards graphics vice text. Next up from him is a supervisor who does auditory first and then likes to see the words on paper, so I brief him verbally then hand him paperwork to review. With each of these supervisors, my use of doctrinal terms and shorthand ebbs and flows due to some of them having a military background and some not.

You should also find out what each audience values. When addressing intelligence organizations at DoD, I often tie my message to the intelligence requirements process. When working with operational organizations at DoD, I speak to the various orders and plans that drive their efforts. When speaking to foreign policy organizations, I tie my message to the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, or similar documents. When dealing with Congress, I know that the Intelligence Committees value the Intelligence Community (IC) and that I need to use IC-centric terminology when briefing them. The Armed Services Committees value the Military Departments and Combatant Commands, so I speak to supporting the warfighter when briefing them. The Appropriations Committees value how money is expended, so I use language from the Government Performance Results Act when briefing them.

Tailor your brief and rehearse.

You will now need to build different versions of your brief based upon who you are briefing, how they prefer to be briefed, and what they value. Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! This includes role-playing within your organization, preferably with people who are not familiar with the issue at hand. During rehearsals, read any prepared language out loud — you will be surprised how many errors you find by doing this.

Execute your brief.

Enter the room to brief having left your ego at the door. Present your plan in an objective, dispassionate, professional manner including or discarding doctrinal terminology or shorthand based upon the audience. Answer the question asked. Do not answer the question not asked. Admit when you do not know something. Offer to find out and return with the answer. Returning with the answer gives you an opportunity to demonstrate to the audience that you heard them and took action to meet their requirement. This goes a long way towards building rapport which may contribute to approval of your plan.

When navigating the Non-Expert Zone, always remember that success is possible, but persistence is the key. Some problems take multiple years to solve. Do not give up the fight; do not let the system win. As General “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell said, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”